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View from the O-Zone: Toughness made MJD memorable


JACKSONVILLE – He was good. Really good.

He was a professional, too – and all that that implies.

Actually, that first sentence isn't enough when discussing Maurice Jones-Drew, who gave this team and this town eight very good, very memorable and very productive seasons and who retired Thursday afternoon after spending his final NFL season with the Oakland Raiders.

Good? No, Jones-Drew was better than that, more than that.

He was dynamic. He was polarizing. He was entertaining. He was driven. He was confident, even cocky, because you have to be confident, even cocky, to play running back in the NFL the way he did at 5-feet-7. He was fast, and when he wasn't as fast as he once was he never believed it – or sure never admitted it.

Through it all, he was tough and toughness was a huge reason he achieved his best, most remarkable season.

And yeah – he had a chip on shoulder, too. That was real.

But it's that toughness I'll remember most, and from this writer's view, it's the toughness that defined Jones-Drew.

A lot of the reason I'll remember the toughness is because I didn't cover the early Jones-Drew years in Jacksonville. From his 2006 rookie season through 2010 – the first five seasons of what in retrospect was the six-year prime of his career – I covered the Colts. I saw him play twice a season. I knew him as a dynamic player the Colts passed on in the 2006 draft, and I knew him as the player who made the Colts regret that decision late in his rookie season when he and Fred Taylor combined to spearhead that 375-yard rushing day that both franchises still remember vividly – though through dramatically different lenses.

I saw him from afar, so I missed the kickoff return against the Steelers, and the Shawne Merriman block.

I missed the days of Pocket Rocket, and the years when he was a fantasy-football favorite.

I missed what was a remarkable 2007 season when he and Fred Taylor teamed up to run the Jaguars to their most recent playoff appearance.

I missed the 2008 and 2009 seasons, too, when Jones-Drew twice rushed for more than 1,300 yards and twice made the Pro Bowl. Those were his first two seasons as a starter, and sometime during that time he showed whoever was watching that, yes, he could start in this league.

Even at his size.

That was always a storyline for Jones-Drew, that size. It was the storyline from his rookie season on and he never tired of talking about how 32 teams passed on him in the draft. It was always a storyline because he wanted it to be a storyline. MJD against the world, against the media, against Vito … that stuff was real, and Jones-Drew never tired of weekly give-and-take with the media. Jones-Drew without question was motivated by his detractors, and when there weren't all that many people detracting he invented some. Anything to be motivated. Anything for a reason to achieve.

Such was the personality that was MoJo.

And you know what? That's OK. That was part of what made Jones-Drew, and part of what made him so fascinating, entertaining – and never, ever boring – to cover, to watch, to be around. He was fascinating and entertaining, perhaps never more so than in 2011 when he did something remarkable.

He willed his way to an NFL rushing title.

I say "willed," because more than anything else, that's what that his 2011 season was about. The Jaguars weren't good that year. They were 5-11 and Josh McCown and Blaine Gabbert played quarterback, with Mike Thomas and some other players playing receiver. The offensive line wasn't what it had been in recent years, and Jack Del Rio was fired as head coach after 11 games.

Jones-Drew underwent serious knee surgery the previous January. At one point in the offseason, he essentially had to learn to walk again.

And yet, game after game in 2011 he squeezed as much from himself as he could every play. He didn't do it on speed. I wrote that season it was the most remarkable rushing season I'd ever seen because nothing came easy. This was a rushing title earned not by long touchdowns but by turning three-yard gains into five-yard gains by running through defensive linemen and linebackers at the line. He didn't glide to that title; he scraped and clawed his way there.

And he darned sure earned it. Yard by yard.

It is the cruel reality of the NFL and the running back position that Jones-Drew's body contained nine seasons, six really good ones. At another position, Jones-Drew is still playing and still playing well.

But he didn't play another position. He played running back.

He played it well – for a while, as well as any runner in the NFL. He gave the Jaguars eight seasons, and gave them professionally and with passion. He did so in unique style that won't soon be forgotten and likely will soon earn a place on the stadium wall aside Boselli, Brunell, Taylor, the Weavers.

That's where he belongs, because the tough player who never let himself forget that 31 teams didn't draft him was an unforgettable player for the one that did.

And he darned was better than good, and darned sure more than that.

A whole lot more.

Maurice Jones-Drew will retire as a member of the Jaguars on Tuesday.

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